Updated for 2020: To sleep or not to sleep...THAT is the question! In our American culture where many parents have little support and don't have the opportunity to sleep when the baby sleeps because we have to go, go, go this is a perfectly reasonable question. When your pediatrician agrees that baby is physically and developmentally able to sleep 6-8, and eventually 10-12 hours uninterrupted there are 2 answers:
1) Simply follow baby's lead and don't worry about when s/he sleeps through the night. The End.
2) Follow baby's lead but practice what we call "sleep helping," to gradually allow baby to sleep long stretches overnight.
For those inclined to go with answer #2, here's what we mean:
1. Encourage daytime feeding: For a healthy newborn of average weight, on-demand feeding is universally recommended for baby in the early weeks of life; baby is getting used to life outside the womb and because baby's stomach is tiny, frequent feedings of less than an ounce and eventually up to 4 ounces around the 1 month mark, are the norm. Once baby is about 12 weeks old though, and we have the pediatrician's okay, we can very slowly encourage more daytime intake by either increasing bottle amounts by 1/4 ounce or increasing time spent at the breast for another minute or 2. This will be a very gradual somewhat imperfect change, but the process will be helped at the same time by...
2. Very gradually decreasing overnight feeding: When baby wakes overnight, try to decrease the usual amount of milk or formula baby takes in. For breastfeeding moms, do your best to take baby off the breast 1 minute or 2 sooner than is typical. For bottle feeding parents, give baby 1/4 of an ounce less than s/he usually takes. You can try to give baby a pacifier at the end of the feeding session if baby still needs to suck to be soothed. Again, this process should not be forced and should come with your pediatrician's blessing, but we are not taking away baby's overnight calories, we are just "repositioning" them to be taken in during the day. This process can take 2-3 weeks of gradual change.
3. Instill a Dreamfeed: A dreamfeed is just a small 2-3 ounce feed usually given around 10pm to sustain baby's need to feed during the time you are asleep. In other words, rather than feeding baby at 1am or 2am when she naturally wakes from hunger we are heading off this hunger by feeding earlier in the night. This way baby sleep has a long stretch of sleep but this stretch occurs when the parents are asleep too. To dreamfeed baby, do not wake baby, simply hold breast/bottle to him and s/he will instinctually take in what she needs. When s/he's done there’s no need to burp because baby is so calm. A quick diaper change should be done as well. If possible, breastfeeding moms can pump and have their partners do this feed so baby does not become aroused by mom’s scent.
Every baby is different of course and there are many, many good answers to the questions of feeding, sleep and what works for each family. For families who ask that most frequently asked question, "When will my baby sleep through the night?" sleep helping can be a gentle answer.